The Science Behind Addictive Digital Behavior

From a Facebook post by my friend ,  Stefan Safko, entitled “Millennial Dating."

From a Facebook post by my friend, Stefan Safko, entitled “Millennial Dating."

Over the weekend, I met a young couple taking their son for a hike. The parents walked wordlessly beside one another, each jabbing at a cell phone, as their son toddled behind them. At a stream crossing, the boy veered off trail and fell in the water up to his waist. I watched in amazement as both the mother and father ignored his yelps and started recording video with their phones. Later, after they had plucked their son out of the stream, I overheard the couple get into an argument about how to caption the video for Facebook.

It’s no surprise these parents wanted to share their experience—Facebook users post more than 4.75 billion pieces of content each day—but social media has become so indispensable for some that it clouds judgment and has resulted in technology addiction. How can we get people to use Facebook safely, and more broadly, how do we ensure that social media is used in healthy ways, with moderation?

My undergraduate professor, Matt Lieberman, has shown that humans need to be social. But the amount of time many people spend using digital tools to be social is unhealthy. According to a report by Common Sense Media, teenagers spend an average of 9 hours per day on various screens and tweens spend about 6 hours per day consuming media. For many young children, technology has become the dominant force in their lives, shaping every moment of their day. Adults are far from immune from this compulsive behavior, though. For example, over the past few years several climbers have tweeted or posted video of themselves after summiting Mt. Everest.

In less adventurous settings, this behavior is even more common. Take a look around an elevator, and there will be at least one person incapable of getting through the short ride without fiddling with a phone or tablet. I call this “Restless Elevator Syndrome.” You’ll also see this happening with drivers waiting at red lights, at the family dinner table, and anywhere else people have a few minutes to kill. Like any other addiction, Restless Elevator Syndrome is progressive and can lead to problems at home, work, or school.

In one study of technology addiction, researchers divided preteens into two groups: one group spent five days at a wilderness camp with no access to media, and another group retained its usual media practices for the same amount of time. Both before and after the experiment, the researchers tested how well participants understood emotional expressions. They found that members of the group that had no access to screen-based media showed significant improvement in their ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues. This change to “becoming a social human again” took only 5 days without using a cell phone!

The implications of this study are powerful: face-to-face social interaction, combined with time away from screens, can improve young people’s ability to read emotions. So, how do we apply this finding in the real world? The answer could be as simple as taking a break from tech each week, whether it’s one day or a couple of hours, to interact in person. We shouldn’t completely isolate kids from technology, of course, but the occasional “digital detox” has become a useful tool to help enhance empathy and prevent unhealthy behavior. 

Concern about social media is a hot topic, but I feel it’s also important to mention the huge upside of Facebook and other platforms. For example, our HOPE social media communities have helped change and improve people’s health behaviors in areas like HIV, drug abuse, and mental health. We continue to use these tools to recruit people into health studies, and I am hopeful that as we move out of the honeymoon phase with social media—after all, Facebook just celebrated its 12th birthday—we’ll see people start using the medium with an eye toward moderation.

That said, the issue of technology addiction is not going away. Just like Louis C.K.’s classic standup routine on what happens if parents don’t limit their kids’ tv watching, the same thing can happen with social media if we don’t regulate its use. It’s easy to find any number of scary quotes from young people: “I would rather not eat for a week than get my phone taken away” or “When I get my phone taken away, I feel kind of naked.” In addition to addiction, tweens and teens have to find a way to navigate issues of privacy, bullying, and identity theft, to name just a few. This can be overwhelming for an adult, let alone a teenager. In a future post, I’ll discuss some of these issues as well as the many benefits of Facebook and social media, including how it can foster diversity and leadership.

Sean Young PhD

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: